A streetcar deemed undesirable, bus rapid transit takes lead in east-west connector plan

Sunday, December 18, 2011 at 10:05pm

If Nashville’s peer cities include places like Charlotte, N.C., and Denver, as Music City’s biggest boosters occasionally declare, then Metro is arguably deviating from the pack on the transit front.

While these two cities, and a long list of others, have made or plan to make significant investments in light rail, modern streetcars, or some combination of the two, Nashville’s big transit push has suddenly steered toward something less sexy and decidedly less expensive: buses. Specifically, bus rapid transit, a popular system in its own right that allows buses to occupy dedicated traffic lanes and, with advanced technology, operate independently from automobile stoplights.

It appears Nashville won’t be riding the rails –– at least not in the immediate future. This city is sticking to tires.

By following a path put forth by a transit report on a potential east-west connector, which Mayor Karl Dean and others unveiled last week, Nashville would join the likes of Eugene, Ore., Cleveland, Ohio, and Las Vegas as American cities with sophisticated bus rapid transit lines. (Call them Nashville’s new sister cities.) The bus rapid transit approach would require less infrastructure –– no tracks below or electric cables above vehicles are necessary –– and far fewer years and dollars to undertake than a streetcar that runs on rails.

The recommendation for bus rapid transit, commonly called BRT, along a new east-west connector capped off a much-anticipated yearlong study led by engineering consulting firm Parsons Brinckerhoff. The analysis, a prerequisite to land highly coveted federal funding for transit projects, explored a five-mile stretch from West End Avenue at White Bridge Road, along Broadway downtown, across the Cumberland River to East Nashville’s Five Points district, via Main or Woodland streets. Consultants released the findings to members of the steering committee for the Broadway-West End corridor last Monday. Dean, an open supporter of expanding transit options since taking office, immediately endorsed the plan.

Planners say they looked at four options for the east-west corridor: doing nothing or establishing light rail, modern streetcars or BRT. They identified streetcars and BRT as the two modes that best addressed the city’s needs. Cost, they say, became an overriding factor in narrowing it down to BRT. Installing a streetcar would cost at minimum $275 million, but BRT’s price tag is $136 million. It’s fewer dollars for comparable ridership figures. And as for popularity with riders, the report predicted that a streetcar on the Broadway-West End corridor would generate an estimated 1.44 million first-year trips, while BRT would generate a projected 1.35 million trips.

Dean, who in a 2007 campaign television ad made a brief mention of BRT, told the small audience last week that now is the time to “move forward boldly” with BRT on the traffic-congested corridor. After the system is installed, he said people in other parts of the city would be “crying out” for BRT near them. 

In putting his political weight behind BRT, Dean made frequent reference to the cost disparity between streetcars and BRT: “If you look at it from the position that I have to look at things, there’s the cost,” he said. “There is a $130 million difference in the cost. That is significant when we have to figure out how to pay for this.”

BRT’s optimal timeline is another factor. 

A BRT line from West End to East Nashville –– which still requires Metro Transit Authority approval along with clearing several financial hurdles –– could be ready by late 2014 or 2015, the mayor said. A modern streetcar, however, would require more time to navigate the morass of bureaucracy to land necessary federal transportation funds, transit leaders say. So a streetcar would likely have to take root well past Dean’s second term, which ends in 2015. BRT, on the other hand, could emerge as one of Dean’s final signature projects. He could be there for the ribbon-cutting.

“I would like to see everything done in the next four years,” Dean told reporters after the unveiling of the transit study. “That’s my personal desire. I think we need to move forward. There’s this proverb that says, ‘The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The second best time is today.’ ”



Metro and transit officials say the stretch along West End, Broadway and across to East Nashville is an ideal spot for mass transit investment because it “brings together” universities, hospitals, businesses and tourist and cultural attractions. The study says 170,000 people currently work along the corridor, and another 25,000 residents live near it, with numbers expected to increase by 10 percent and 24 percent, respectively, by 2035.

At first glance, Dean’s preference for BRT over a modern streetcar doesn’t seem like the most exciting option for Nashville’s transit enthusiasts. Nonetheless, many say they’re already on board.  

Ed Cole, executive director of the Transit Alliance of Middle Tennessee, told The City Paper he considers himself a “convert” from pro-streetcar to favoring BRT. He likened the east-west corridor to a “Main Street” for the entire Middle Tennessee region.

“BRT is a very strong solution,” Cole said. “I think it will work. I think the dollar savings speak for themselves. The secret and the key to this is to do it right. And the ingredient to doing it right –– and we hear it from people who talk to the alliance all the time –– is reliable service, frequent service and a sense of permanence.”

That’s the sort of formula that Metro officials and Parsons Brinckerhoff consultants described as they released the study’s findings.

In terms of physical appearance, BRT buses would look similar to streetcars even though one consists of rubber-tired vehicles and the other rail cars. Through visible signage, BRT would be “easily identifiable” to stand out to riders. BRT is designed to move passengers in and out quickly. Fare collection is designed to be fast and easy. Stations would dot the corridor, allowing buses to stop every 10 minutes.

In 2009, Metro installed a simpler version of BRT along Gallatin Pike in East Nashville. But the version proposed for the east-west connector would be dramatically different, largely in two ways: Dedicated lanes would be set aside for BRT buses, and the system would be capable of traffic-signal preference for the buses.

Michelle Kendall, who works out of Parsons Brinckerhoff’s Nashville office, said besides the cost there are other considerations that make BRT ideal for Nashville’s east-west connector over a streetcar system: the shorter installation time frame, more flexibility, higher probability of securing federal dollars and future transit expansion.

“Cost was one of the factors,” Kendall said. “But there’s a variety of things that we looked at when we studied what’s the best fit.”

Among groups that seemed captivated by the idea of a modern streetcar was the nonprofit Nashville Civic Design Center, which last year put together schematic designs and renderings to offer a visual representation of what a modern streetcar line could look like along the Broadway-West End corridor.

But after hearing the study’s case for BRT, Gary Gaston, the design center’s director, believes BRT has its benefits.

“I think the fact that it can be done quickly and cost less –– as opposed to maybe having to wait up to 10 years to get something like a rail system –– is better,” Gaston said. He added that if successful, which he believes BRT would be, it could transition to further transit advancements in the future. “I’m really excited. I think the fact that we’re going to do this on hopefully a fast track to get this in place, is probably the most important thing.”

While the level of Metro’s financial commitment to help pay for a $136 million BRT system is still unclear, Dean said BRT offers “the best chance” to acquire federal funding. To compete for federal dollars for large-scale transit projects, Metro would likely need to identify a local dedicated funding source at some point. The east-west corridor will continue to be the topic of future community meetings. 

Michael Skipper, executive director of the Metropolitan Planning Organization, said federal transportation grants typically go to projects that produce the “most amount of travel savings for the population for the least amount of money.” He described the process as “highly competitive.” He also said competitive federal funds for transit were set aside in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. There are also formula federal funds that Metro already receives, he said.

Moving forward, Skipper said it’s important future transit options in Nashville be “transformative” in the way it moves people, spur economic development, and helps people re-think the possibilities of public transit. He believes BRT achieves these goals.

“Typically, rail can meet all three of those challenges and traditional bus can’t,” Skipper said. “But what we’re beginning to have available are really innovative and transformative BRT projects. What’s key is how you implement it.”    

31 Comments on this post:

By: shinestx on 12/19/11 at 7:29

Typically, Nashville's "leaders" are 15 years behind the pack. 10 years ago the federal government was virtually giving away millions to build transit rail, and the visionaries in Denver, Charlotte, Dallas and Sacramento took advantage of the opportunity. I witnessed how LRT actually revived Sacramento's downtown, and now thousands of residents call the CBD home. But Nashville citizens stupidly put Jim "Stupor" Cooper (an ineffective back bencher with an unearned reputation for being frugal) and Bill Purcell.... and the city has been crippled by poor decisions ever since then. "Stupor" can't even secure funding for a Federal Courthouse that has been on the CBO's (GSA's too) top-needs list for 19 years. He was asked about this in 2009, and he said, "I don't know why we haven't received funds". We do know... and now the government is broke. The Obama administration could have built a 30-mile transit system in any city for what they blew on Solyndra... and that's not even mentioning the other three (so far) half-billion dollar boondoggles that have been brought to light in the past 4 months.

By: JeffF on 12/19/11 at 9:45

I am genuinely excited that it looks like Nashville is finally developing plans for a transit system that is not built on the fan-boy, fuzzy hype of rail and streetcars and does not involve the appeal of the system to tourists.

Nashville is its citizens and the citizens need transportation, not the continuing flushing of finite resources into still more downtown redevelopment schemes (disguised as legitimate and needed civic services). A commuter line that takes people to the tourist oriented riverfront instead of a legitimate employment neighborhood is having trouble meeting service promises? Shocking! Buses that only head to and from a quasi-centralized node are having to raise fares to meet fixed costs? Stunning!

We have the momentum people, the consultants are now aware of the decline in federal dollars and are beginning to recommend affordable, reasonable, and "best fit" projects instead of antiquated, quaint, sexy ones. Our leaders are finally beginning to give us what we need instead of social engineering us into what they feel we should be doing. Once this is built I plan on supporting it every way I can because this is far closer to the wise path than what has been happening in a couple of decades.

Obviously I am excited. Because of the cost savings there is an actual chance this is a scheme that can be expanded. Streetcars would exhaust all funds and leave us with just one line. BRT gives us hope that we may have a system that serves multiple legs (Music Circle-Hillsboro-Green Hills, Murfreesboro Road, Nolensville Road, OHB/Bell Road serving Antioch to Brentwood to Bellevue maybe even stretching to Old Hickory). I am on the bandwagon. This city NEEDS to be connected to itself, not just to downtown. This is the pah that gets us there.

By: MusicCity615 on 12/19/11 at 11:15


Maybe you can answer this. I know that the BRT will have "dedicated lanes". However, will cars be allowed on this? Having lived in Dallas, DC, and New York, I have experienced their busing systems, and if cars are allowed onto the dedicated lanes, this system will not work. A bus sitting in traffic will be just that, a bus sitting in traffic.

For this to be successful, the dedicated lanes need to be for the buses ONLY, at least in the downtown, west end portion (can be different for more neighborhood types in east Nashville and around St. Thomas). People in their cars sitting in traffic and seeing bus after bus whizzing past them will be the best incentive to use the BRT.

By: WickedTribe on 12/19/11 at 11:32

This is such an awful idea for so many reasons. A dedicated lane is going to be a nightmare through downtown and West End. At least if it goes to the Music City Star stop it could help people get down West End from there. Going to East Nashville is a pointless waste unless they were to finally build a bridge and connect it all the way through Donelson and Hermitage as well, but that will never happen and would cause even more of a traffic boondoggle anyway.

By: Ask01 on 12/19/11 at 11:35

I would have loved to see a streetcar system in place in Nashville, as well as light rail serving all of the outlying communities such as I have observed in Europe. However, the problem in America is people are too in love with their cars. Citizens suffer from a terminal case of 'me, me, me,' refusing to forego driving in favor of public transportation, due to selfishness or, because as one person told me, 'only poor people take the bus.'

I do predict, as I have previously, an uptick in MTA ridership in the next decade as more baby boomers give up driving, voluntarily or involuntarily, and have to rely upon public transit. Unless you young whippersnappers want to drive us around as we did when you were young.

By: JeffF on 12/19/11 at 12:15

There are already lanes unavailable to moving cars on West End, they are the awkward parking lanes on each side. A BRT line would have to use one of those and yes, it would have to be for the buses only (curbed and gored out from the other lanes).

Just remember folks, do not mix up your transit needs here. This version of the BRT is inner-city, short line in nature. Other versions that do not have to take up a dedicated lane would be applicable for the middle range applications (like the one need mentioned by WickedTribe and the one already in place on that one northern route). Longer distance stuff to the burbs would have to come later and may be served by express bus, maybe even train if it is terminated somewhere logical.

Nashville really needs to get its internal transportation services together before worrying about the suburban needs. If you do not have a functional network in place in Nashville then you have a situation where people are being dumped out on the riverfront with little opportunity (unless they work in a bar). We do not need to be asking for suburban funding for our internal needs right now. We can do this on our own and prove to them we can serve them efficiently, conveniently, and affordable WHEN the time comes.

I really do not see asking for funds from Franklinites to fund a streetcar that serves West End and East Nashville. We will be beholden to their elected officials for those funds and their priorities will not match ours. BRT because it is more affordable AND quickly attainable will allow us to avoid regional entanglements until it is time to serve the entire region.

By: RTungsten on 12/19/11 at 2:56

Correct me if I'm wrong, but didn't Nashville have trollies a few years back? I thought I used to see them in downtown, not sure if this was a tourist thing or not. I have also seen trollies in Franklin, although they were not wired cable cars like in other cities.

The biggest traffic issue I see downtown is getting stuck behind the carriages. If they wanted to fix something, do away with those. Just move them out to Centennial Park and light the park at night.

By: producer2 on 12/19/11 at 3:02

The dedicated bus lanes will be the inner most lanes on either side of the street with a shared "station" for passengers at each stop. This has been displayed in all of the illustrations as well. This allows all of the traffic turning left or right to continue without impedance. The only traffic lights that will be affected are those that control traffic that completely cross streets.

By: MusicCity615 on 12/19/11 at 3:32


So on the stretches that are not near the lights, it will be Bus only, correct?

By: JeffF on 12/19/11 at 3:36

Then they could move the displaced traffic to the outer lanes of asphalt now used for parking. But I still don't think that would work well. The center lane works for streetcars where the vehicle does not have to turn around, but buses will need to turn around. Puting them into a slot in the middle of the road negates the advantage of flexibility (and to also pull out of the way for another oncoming bus). I also do not think having the stations in the middle of a wide avenue with lots of car traffic is a good safety idea for the pedestrians boarding and getting off the buses. Since those outside lanes are not used and the discouranging of on-street parking is another good thing lets just use those lanes for the moment.

By: JeffF on 12/19/11 at 3:41

The more I think about it, moving to the middle lanes and building full fledged stations in those locations really negates the flexibility and cost containment of BRT. And you are really crimping the tool set police, fire, and traffic engineers have when a regular lane is shutdown due to maintenance or some sort of accident. Its okay to sign off a lane to non-bus traffic, but barricading it from any possible outside vehicle access is really, really shortsighted.

The end result of BRT in barricaded middle lanes is a streetcar system with rubber wheels. Take advantage of the infrastructure already in place and put the buses on the outside.

By: JeffF on 12/19/11 at 3:51

Awesome piece:

By: judyboodo@yahoo.com on 12/19/11 at 3:52

This is just insanity. To start with who would ride this money pit from West End? Where would they be coming from? Where would you park at White Bridge Rd? How many stops would a BRT make and how often? If not enough then how far would people have to walk to get to their destinations? You people live in some sort of fantasy world. How many people would really use this bad idea? Don't rely on the paid consultants.Spenders like Dean can't wait to get a hold of federal dollars, just living in the past, whistling past the financial graveyard. This is almost as stupid as marking off one third of the street for nonexistence bicycles.

By: producer2 on 12/19/11 at 3:55

it will be the exact setup that any LRT or streetcar system would use. The only difference is that busses have tires and don't require tracks be built. The only turnaround needed will be at each end of the run. Te advantage is that a bus could actually pull out of the lane if need be and rail cannot.

By: JeffF on 12/19/11 at 4:02

Producer, are we nearly on the same page on something?

The New York story talks about the use of paint segregated lanes and enforcement

By: producer2 on 12/19/11 at 4:11

every once in awhile a miracle does happen! :)

By: Nashvillesanity on 12/19/11 at 5:47

Lets be quite honest with ourselves - the reason the City doesn't have more $$ to move towards a transit overhaul is due to (a) a 1.5 billion dollar convention center with cost overruns; (b) no tax increases yet; and (c) a penchant desire by Mayor Dean to build a new baseball stadium with taxpayer money.

The simple fact is the City has offered up municipal bonds to pay for every major addition/development that's already happened or in the works in the last 10 years. As a result the City lacks the credit rating on the municipal bond market to pay for anything other than a rudimentary BRT line which is a modest improvement over what we have already.

Its intellectually dishonest to think the US Government would be any less willing to fund a transportation overhaul including modern streetcars or light rail if Nashville had more money to contribute to the project. Simply stated, the City with the greatest financial backing which will effectively serve its residents will get the Federal dollars - not the one that proposes the cheapest plan.

When you venture out into Nashville to board a bus with a just a few more bells and whistles and wonder why we don't have rail or some other modern method of transportation that allows expansion and positive inner city growth, just cast your eyes at the new convention center for your answer.

By: Nashvillesanity on 12/19/11 at 6:12

One more thing:

Right now, in terms of current population, is the time for making the crucial decision about whether Nashville will become a sprawling Atlanta-type city or a concentrated vibrant downtown metropolitan area.

We need to be cognizant of how the choices we make on offering services to City residents will impact the greater Nashville area.

If we choose to keep funding major structures which don't translate into a growing downtown populous we're going to (a) be forced to raise taxes, and (b) encourage people to live in Williamson, Rutherford, Wilson, Robertson, and Sumner Counties. (Nobody wants to live in Dickson)

People will ask themselves, "Why would I live in Davidson County and pay huge property taxes, have a crappy public transportation system, and lack the urban services other cities (like Denver, Portland, Charlotte, etc.) offer when I can just buy a house in a border county and commute in?

If too many people answer the above question with - "I wouldn't live there" then what you will see is downtown Nashville become the inner city - just like Atlanta experienced in the late 1980's and early 1990's.

By: JeffF on 12/19/11 at 9:03

Sanity, I am curious as to where you think Nashville's major structures have been built in the last 20 years if not downtown. I think every decision has been aimed toward a growing downtown at the detriment of the other 95% of Metro.

By: shinestx on 12/20/11 at 6:54

Thanks for the comments, especially the explanation of the BRT system Producer. But the more I learn about either LRT or BRT, the more convinced I become that the routes should not go straight up/along West End. Instead, it seems more useful for the routes to go out/in about 1 block away from West End (on either side, such as Church/Elliston to 25th to Park Plaza to 31st to Wedgewood to 21st or (better) 17th to Demobreun to Gateway/Korea Vets to Shelby Street to Five Points to Main (and the MTA transit center) and back over to Church. It would have the benefit of a complete loop, while minimizing additional congestion to the busiest corridors. Finally, it would open up so many more areas for Transit Oriented Development.

By: producer2 on 12/20/11 at 7:42

Let's be REALLY honest. the City has not taken ANY money out of the General Fund for the Music City Center. The entree project has and will be paid for with hotel/motel taxes primarily generated from folks using the facility and visiting Nashville. The reason the City is less than healthy monetarily is that you and i pay very little in terms of property taxes, etc. when compared to other cities our size.

By: producer2 on 12/20/11 at 7:44

We will all need to walk a few blocks to catch the bus. Folks in NY laugh at us because we are too lazy to walk to get to anything. Maybe that is why we are so obese as a City!

By: shinestx on 12/20/11 at 10:51

My comment has nothing to do with obesity. Presumably, those who are wedded to their cars will go through raging fires of hell to avoid having to walk. I saw a plump woman just today with her plump child in the backseat as she pulled into the EMPTY parking lot... absolutely no cars, but mine parked purposely a brisk walk away from the front door of the business I patronized. Her and her child's obesity is not my business except for the fact that I couldn't help noticing her ability to walk rather quickly from her car to the store.

Regarding my point above... perhaps I did not make it clear that any transit along West End will do nothing but make more cars sit idling at lights... and eventually drive businesses away from that area. My point is to get control of managing the congestion by allowing it to spread to the parallel streets while main arteries are allowed to flow with synchronized signaling up/down West End. To try to make West End a pedestrian friendly parkway is a lost cause (good money after bad). Instead, concentrate on the 2 or 3-lane alternatives surrounding that corridor and enable the development of neighborhoods that promote the walking hoped-for by social engineers among us.

By: MusicCity615 on 12/20/11 at 12:35


Thanks for the article. Nice read. Having lived in New York and experienced the horrible buses that would be stalled by 30+ people going in one at a time, as well as taxis, cars, etc. all being in the same lane, I determined walking was faster.

I prefer the lanes to be segmented off from the car lanes, not sure if that is in the plan.

Producer/ JeffF-

Will there be a fast way for everyone to load onto the bus like what was mentioned in the article? If each person swipes their card one at a time, this BRT will NEVER work.

By: MusicCity615 on 12/20/11 at 12:41


One question for you-

Let's say the BRT is extremely successful. So successful that they can't fit everyone waiting for the bus into the bus. One positive to light rail is they can add more cars, but you can't add more buses.

What's the solution? more and more buses? at some point that sounds counter-productive.

By: Nashvillesanity on 12/20/11 at 1:19


If you think the City will generate 1.5 billion dollars in hotel surtaxes - I have some beachfront property in Wilson County to sell you. The hotel surtax is going to fund some of the operation of the convention space, but understand the City put the cost of this thing on the municipal bond credit card. They could begin collecting hotel surtaxes until 2150 and not recover the cost of the convention center plus interest.

Is it wise for a city to take the land by eminent domain, get sued for the price paid and ultimately owe more than double the original sale price, purchase a convention center that by design its own residents will not use, build it without local labor, put off raising property taxes so its politically palatable in the interim - all the while the market for large conventions and pricey hotels dwindles while we already have the Gaylord Opryland and Nashville Convention Center in full operation?

Look, we have the convention center and its here to stay so we should hope that it succeeds, but we can (and should) still be honest and recognize that it was an unwise choice when we lack funds to keep taxes low or invest in a real mass transit overhaul.

These choices will lead to downtown Nashville being the depressed inner city for the sprawling surrounding burb counties where all of its affluent people commute long distances for work, shopping and play, there is a shortage of parking, excess traffic, high crime, a stumbling resident tax base, lack of urban services. See Atlanta, Georgia, Los Angles, California, Houston, Texas.

By: JeffF on 12/20/11 at 4:34

Atlanta's downtown is actually improving somewhat now thanks to brownfield redevelopment. Its still not delivering what the neourbanistas were promising, but it is marginally better none the less. Having two good sized universities in downtown really gives Atlanta a leg up on other "sprawl" cities. Houston just sucks all around. LA, same thing, but without the humidity but with extra vapidness.

The article did mention what cities have done when BRT gets busier. They use bigger equipment (giggity) and/or increase frequencies. Also, I would hope the ticketing system would mean you cannot get into the loading area without purchasing a ticket from the kiosk or swiping a pass. Doing it there instead of at the bus door is very common in other modals. BRT definetly redefines the bus awning by turning it into a controlled station area. The pictures from the stations in South America are quite interesting with their unique shapes.

Another benefit of ticketing at the station, keeping the homless out and limited staff needs to be around to check tickets.

By: MusicCity615 on 12/20/11 at 6:20

Agree. If the ticketing issue can be resolved before anyone gets in the bus, that will really help BRT become a success.

By: T. Johnson on 12/20/11 at 6:26

This project is not primarily about converting drivers to mass transit; you can take it or leave it. This is, as it should be, about allowing more development in an area of the city that already commands some of the cities highest real-estate values and thus adds to the city's tax base. The current infrastructure will limit the area's appeal as it reaches critical mass. So, this project fails if it doesn't produce hotels, condos, apartments, and offices along it's corridor. To do this the project has to be well planned to provide measurable convenience not just novelty.

By: T. Johnson on 12/20/11 at 6:32

Also, a BRT without a dedicated lane is called a "bus".

By: JeffF on 12/20/11 at 10:35

Someone would have to dismantle MDHA before any downtown development increased the tax base. All new construction is either public project or TIFed. Any sales tax growth has been spoken for tsice, once for the MCC and again for the Omni. Prior spending has really sucked the city dry when it finally is important for actual public projects like transportation and sewer/stormwater. We are now at the mercy of our neighbors and the state legislature.